Sunday, September 9, 2012



This is the twenty-ninth installment, comprising Act 4. Scene 8, chapter 10: 32-45, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the twenty-eighth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.

This is my division of the Gospel:


Prologue,  1:1-13;
Act  1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).

Scene 8

32 They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; 34 they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again." 35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." 36 And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" 37 And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." 38 But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" 39 They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (NRSV)

In many ways this Scene marks the climax of the Gospel thus far and turning point of the Gospel as a whole. It is the final time prior to Jerusalem in which Jesus attempts to instruct his disciples about the meaning of discipleship and, more importantly, the meaning of his life and messiahship, explicitly laying out for them not just his death and resurrection, which he has done twice previously in chapter 8 and chapter 9, but also interpreting the purpose of his death for them.

Mark sets the scene by placing them on the road to Jerusalem, but even more by telling us that Jesus was “walking ahead of them” alone (10:32). Beyond even that detail, though, Mark tells us expressly why Jesus is alone by giving us a view of the emotions of the disciples and the crowd which continues to follow Jesus:  “they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid” (10:32). Now, “amazement” and “fear” have not been absent from the disciples or the crowds in the past, yet it is generally in light of some miraculous event, such as a healing, walking on water or a multiplication of loaves. Mark has given us this insight, though, in light of Jesus’ teaching on gaining eternal life. Jesus sent the rich man away because he would not sell all that he had; the disciples were perplexed, confused and challenged by Jesus’ saying and actions. Mark tells us it has gone beyond confusion regarding his teaching; in fact, Jesus’ teaching has created fear amongst his followers. His last encounter with the rich man seems to have made clear that Jesus’ way is not an easy way, nor easily comprehensible on human terms, or perhaps even on divine terms as they understood them.

Without an explanation, Mark makes it known that Jesus perceives their dilemma, as “he took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him” (10:32). What he tells them mimics what he has said in the previous Passion Predictions (8:31, 9:31), with slightly more detail than the previous two predictions but no new information:

"See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again." (10:33-34)

The response is also similar to what we saw in the previous two chapters, in which Peter rebukes Jesus and in which the disciples argue over who is the greatest, responses which highlight the fact that they have not heard the significance of what Jesus is saying or do not believe it. Mark makes the response of James and John immediate in Scene 8, giving the audience no time to reflect upon what Jesus said and drawing attention to the fact that James and John could not even have let the words sink in before they begin to focus their attention on their own desires and ask something of Jesus.

In light of Jesus’ claim that he must suffer and die, James and John find it the opportune time to say, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you" (10:35). It is the equivalent of hearing someone say that he has been diagnosed with cancer and responding by asking him whether when he dies you could have his bookshelf that you have liked so much.  Jesus does not, so far as we are told, respond by dropping his jaw to the ground, or pushing them angrily aside, but instead he asks them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” (10:36). The request of the brothers Zebedee shows, though, that something has sunk in with them, for their request focuses on God’s kingdom to come which they believe Jesus will establish. That much became clear to them at the Transfiguration: Jesus’ true home is glory.  The problem is one of timing, and not just in that Jesus has announced his coming death a third time, but they desire glory without the suffering. They will not hear what Jesus has to say: the Kingdom will come, but the Messiah must first suffer and die. Instead they ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). That is, in your royal power, make us your vice-regents.

Jesus tells them that they do not even know what they are asking – which seems to be the case literally – and then outlines his forthcoming suffering in metaphors:

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (10:38)

They respond simply, “We are able,” and Jesus agrees that “the cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (10:39), even if the brothers do not understand the significance of what they have said yet. Jesus, that is, agrees that they will undergo similar sufferings to his, ironic considering what they believe they are requesting, but he then goes on to reject their request to be his kingly vice-regents. Jesus explains that it is not his power to do so – “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared” – which might indicate that it is God the Father’s prerogative or it is dependent upon behaviors which transcend those of the brothers.

The reaction of the ten to the requests of James and John indicate resentment – “when the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John” (10:41) – but Jesus’ subsequent teaching supports a reading that their anger at James and John was based upon their own desire to have a greater share of power and glory not because the brothers had been rude in passing over Jesus’ pronouncement of suffering. As a result, Jesus explains the purpose of his death to them and the meaning of their leadership amongst his followers.

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (10:42-45)

As Jerusalem looms in the next step down the road, Mark has Jesus take them aside in order to dig deep into their shared mission.

Jesus says to be a leader in the Church is not to be “a lord” or “tyrant,” though the disciples’ words have indicated that this is their hope and desire. Jesus’ goal is not to replace Gentile lords and tyrants with new, improved Jewish lords and tyrants, but in the Kingdom, or “reign,” of God rulers must be servants and, in Jesus’ strongest language, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” This is not empty language for the troops from a general who surveys the slaughter on the battlefield safe from a mountaintop, but one who will lead the charge.

Jesus says that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45). It is only one sentence, but it sums up the purpose of Jesus’ death, the sort of Messiah he is and the reason he goes willingly to Jerusalem. He interprets his death as a sacrificial death – “a ransom for many” – based upon his goal of serving people. The language of “ransom” evokes salvation through purchase, freeing “many” in this case, from slavery or capture. The “for many” suggests the language of Isaiah 53:12 of the “Suffering Servant Song,” in which the servant “poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” Naturally, the servant language of Jesus also connects to Isaiah 52:13-53:12 as a whole. Jesus desires his death not for the sake of death, not for the sake of glory, but for all those who cannot save themselves. This is whom you are following Jesus says.    

 John W. Martens
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